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Priyanka Chopra tries to conquer new shores with her role in Quantico

Has American network television finally moved beyond the tired old tropes of typecasting where Indian characters are concerned?

brunch Updated: Oct 10, 2015 21:39 IST
Seema Goswami
Seema Goswami
Hindustan Times
quantico,priyanka chopra,Kunal Nayyar

I caught the first episode of Quantico in the strangest of places: Siem Reap in Cambodia (home to the fabulous Angkor Wat and other equally amazing temples). And such are the quirks of television scheduling that I saw it several days before it was aired in India.

So, what did I think of it? Well, it’s a good show, sharp, pacy, and full of surprises, which borrows heavily from such series as How To Get Away With Murder, Homeland, and even Grey’s Anatomy, but still manages to write its own grammar.

I won’t say any more about the plot in case you kill me for the spoilers, but by now surely everyone knows that the story revolves around a half-Indian, half-American FBI agent called Alex Parrish, who is framed for the most dreaded terrorist attack on US soil after 9/11 (and she can only clear her name by finding the real culprit who is one of her classmates from the FBI training academy at Quantico.)

Alex Parrish is, of course, played by Priyanka Chopra. Many have wondered why Chopra decided to risk her superstardom in India by choosing to play the lead in an American TV series. Well, according to Chopra herself, she hasn’t given up on Bollywood. She still flies back to Mumbai over the weekends to shoot for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s next magnum opus, Bajirao Mastani, and will continue to make Hindi movies.

That might well be the case. But equally, there is no denying that given how Bollywood works, at 33, Chopra has only a few leading-lady years left in her. After that, it will be mostly quirky, small-budget movies (what the Bollywoodwallahs call multiplex cinema) that will come her way.

So Chopra must have done a quick cost-benefit analysis. What is better: making smaller and fewer movies in India; or trying to break into American network television, which is in a red-hot creative phase? Surely, that was a no-brainer.

But the more important question surely is: why is an American network like ABC making a TV series that revolves around an Indian (okay half-Indian) character? Well, clearly the Indian-American demographic is now important enough to merit leading ladies and men who look like them.

This is not a new development. Indians who live and work in the diaspora have been playing Indian characters as part of an ensemble cast for some time now. It began with Sendhil Ramamurthy, who played a geneticist, Mohinder Suresh, in the sci-fi series Heroes (he then went on to play a half-Indian character called Jai Wilcox in Covert Affairs, whose mysterious death is one of the show’s central themes).

Indian achievers: Kunal Nayyar (left) plays a science nerd in The Big Bang Theory; Mindy Kaling (centre) is the first Indian-origin woman to play a central character; and Archie Panjabi (right) went beyond the stereotype of the academic Indian.

But the biggest success story was undoubtedly that of British-Indian actor, Kunal Nayyar, who plays Raj Koothrappali, an astrophysicist at Caltech, in The Big Bang Theory. Unlike Sendhil, who sounds like a true-blue Westerner if you close your eyes, Kunal sounds exactly like you and me: an educated middle-class Indian who went to an English-medium school. There’s no attempt at a comical ‘Indian’ accent, and many thanks for that.

If Raj Koothrappali was a breakthrough of sorts, then the character of Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife, played by British-Indian actress Archie Panjabi, pushed the envelope even further. As the sassy private detective who fearlessly goes where the police dare to tread, Sharma rocks a short skirt and tight black leather jacket. And to mix things up even more, she is bisexual, which certainly improves her chances of a date on Saturday night.

The credit for being the first Indian-origin woman to play the central character in an American TV series, though, goes to Mindy Kaling, creator and star of The Mindy Project. She played an Indian ob-gyn, Mindy Lahiri, and succeeded in making a post-racial show, in which the least interesting thing about Lahiri was her ethnicity. Yes, she was brown and she was Indian, but the comedy went far beyond that.

But while all these shows were path-breaking in their own way, in some sense the casting didn’t go beyond stereotypes. You had genetic researchers (Mohinder Suresh in Heroes), science nerds (Raj Koothrappali in The Big Bang Theory), maths geniuses (Amita Ramanujan in Numbers), over-achieving doctors (Mindy Lahiri in The Mindy Project). Only Archie Panjabi’s Kalinda Sharma truly went beyond the stereotype of the nerdy, academic Indian.

What makes Chopra’s debut in Quantico a breakthrough is that she is not an American-Indian or a British-Indian. She is a bona fide Indian star, who conquered Bollywood before setting her sights on America. And that she plays an action star, an FBI agent who pulls no punches and has no compunction about pulling out her gun. You really can’t get more American than that.

So has American network television finally moved beyond the tired old tropes of typecasting where Indian characters are concerned?

Well, don’t pop the champagne just yet. We still have miles to go, as indeed does Chopra. She discovered this the hard way when her show’s network ran a promotional video for Quantico, which featured shots of Priyanka Chopra winning the Miss World contest. There was only one problem: the Miss World featured in the clips was Yukta Mookhey! Clearly, to some American eyes, one Indian beauty queen looks much like the other. Perhaps with Quantico, that will change.

From HT Brunch, October 11

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First Published: Oct 10, 2015 19:17 IST